Various Artists

Elgar from America, Vol. 1: Enigma Variations; Cello Concerto; Falstaff

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Elgar from America, Volume 1 may seem the kind of release of most interest to aficionados of historical recordings, and indeed it is something of an odd collection. Even in the 1940s, when they were made, Elgar had begun to fall out of fashion in the U.S., and two of the three works, the Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85, and Falstaff, Op. 68, are performed by musicians not often associated with Elgar: cellist Gregor Piatigorsky and conductor Artur Rodzinski, respectively. Furthermore, the Falstaff performance is cut, for unclear reasons that might have included the requirements of radio broadcast. You might have wondered how these three works could be fit onto a single CD; the explanation involves not only the Falstaff cuts but the quick, sometimes even breakneck tempos in Arturo Toscanini's reading of the Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 36 ("Enigma Variations"). Sample some of these at various tempos, perhaps the "Dorabella" variation, to see whether you're in tune with the larger-than-life, brassy reading Toscanini gives the work. He clocks in at about four minutes faster than the average of roughly 30 minutes for the work, and even in the slower pieces, he pushes the NBC Symphony Orchestra toward a kind of nervous expressiveness. The brass keep up with Toscanini through some very tough sledding, and to these ears, it's a remarkable if idiosyncratic performance that will challenge you not to tap your feet. Other Toscanini performances from this time contain errors, and you can easily understand why. More than a curiosity, it's a unique reading of the work from a conductor who, contrary to what you might think, admired Elgar. The Piatigorsky cello concerto is also a strong, passionate reading from a player who never recorded the work except on this occasion. Highly recommended.

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